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Federal Way school closes student achievement gap

Last year, Sacajawea Middle School was awarded a $30,000 grant from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) because of its success in closing the achievement gap in recent years.

The achievement gap, which describes the disparity in academic success between students along racial and socioeconomic lines, has been a major focus of educators locally and nationwide.

At the Federal Way School Board meeting Sept. 27, Sacajawea principal David Brower, and assistant principal JoAnne Landis, explained how that $30,000 from the OSPI was spent last year.

As part of the grant, Sacajawea was coupled with Hudtloff Middle School in the Clover Park District, with Sacajawea taking the leadership role in trying to help the Tacoma-area school close the achievement gap.

“Overall, we were asked to investigate and share how we closed the achievement gap, and our plan for continued work,” Landis said. “In essence, the end outcome was to tell our story, our story at Sacajawea, about what we’re doing well and what our findings were.”

Landis said those involved with this grant project decided to look at Sacajawea’s core vision statement.

“Initially, we returned to our core principles, our essential questions. Our Sacajawea vision statement: to prepare our students for success in high school and beyond, and to be continually asking ourselves. Where is the learning going? Where is the learner now? And how are we closing that gap? (Those are) three essential questions in all that we do,” she said.

Brower said part of the focus of this grant project was to identify the “small” things done at Sacajawea that equal a greater whole.

“As we were going through the state and meeting with other schools, people always asked, ‘What did you do?’ as though there was one magic answer,” Brower said. “And they were waiting for that one big thing. ‘What was the math program we could just do, and when we do it, everyone will magically achieve.’ And well, we realized, we reaffirmed, there is no one big answer, but that doesn’t mean that the small answers aren’t powerful.”

Five things have been key to Sacajawea’s success in closing the achievement gap, Brower said. The first is a culture of collaboration among Sacajawea’s “stakeholders” as Brower termed it, meaning strong working relationships between teachers, staff and families.

The second contributing factor is numerous partnerships in the community, with Brower citing Federal Way’s Communities in Schools program and similar mentorship and support groups. He also cited the district’s data systems, saying the specificity provided by these systems is key to understanding where students are — and where they need to go.

Finally, he said a strong central vision from the district on down to the school level, along with supportive district policies such as Standards Based Education and academic acceleration, were key.

Landis described what things Sacajawea did with the $30,000 from the OSPI.

“Because of this grant, we were able to create opportunities to bring people together and increase leadership in our school,” she said. “We had a school-to-school team of 11 staff members and two parents that meet twice a month, every Friday morning at 7 a.m. without fail, to discuss these various components, look at our desegregated data, talk about our student input, talk about the surveys we gave, and have those critical conversations.”

A multicultural event was something that the grant funds went toward, said Landis. There were also two conferences that the aforementioned leadership team was able to attend, along with an inservice day dedicated to studying and understanding student data. A two-day workshop was offered for staff, Landis said, to help with “standards-based unit design.” Some of the grant funding was spent on books and instructional materials for staff.

Landis did note that during the last school year, Sacajawea was able to connect with a University of Washington doctoral student. Landis said this student introduced the idea of a “Positive Behavior Intervention System” to Sacajawea, with the idea being to have teachers greet students with five positive things to say every day as they come through the classroom door.

Sacajawea’s assistant principal said the work continues to help students improve.

“We’re working this year, with our school leadership team, to include more people in those conversations because we know how powerful and important that is,” she said. “And we’re continuing our partnerships with community organizations and other schools, and knowing that time to see and work with other teachers, outside of our individual buildings, is very powerful as well.”

 

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